See Inside: House of Pain. Map by Jacob Thomas.
By the time Robinson arrived at One Main, Michael McKie, a Correction officer, was desperate to get out. McKie hadn’t planned on working in a jail. At six feet eight inches tall, McKie was a basketball star. “He was a dunking machine,” says Eric Eisenberg, McKie’s coach at Tilden High in Brooklyn. “He’s blocking shots, running the floor, taking charges.” When McKie’s dream job with the NBA didn’t work out, he joined Correction. Jail work was an odd fit. “You could not pick a more meek, genteel, kind kid in the whole world than Michael McKie,” Eisenberg says.
Both McKie and Robinson have left One Main, but not under circumstances either of them would have chosen. On October 18, 2008, Robinson was beaten to death in his cell by fellow inmates. And months later, McKie and a partner were charged with running a criminal enterprise inside their housing area and outsourcing their duties to the teenagers who killed Robinson. The enterprise was so organized that it allegedly had a name—“the Program”—with inmates operating in “teams” to enforce order while extorting inmates for their commissary chits and phone privileges, even the right to sit in a seat. If convicted, McKie and his partner could face up to 25 years in prison and end up serving time with those once under their watch. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March and is shining a light on one of the darkest places in our culture. Taxpayers pay about $72,000 per inmate per year at Rikers, just about twice as much as tuition at the best private schools in Manhattan.
The case has also captured the attention of the Department of Justice. In recent months, prosecutors from the Civil Rights Unit in Washington, D.C., have contacted city defense attorneys to obtain information about cases in which officers are alleged to have used inmates to keep order at RNDC. Sandy Rubenstein, who represents Robinson’s mother in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city, got a call from the Feds. So did attorney Julia Kuan, who filed a number of claims on behalf of Rikers inmates and turned over information. “They are casting a wide net,” Kuan says of federal prosecutors. “They are looking into bringing a class-action-type lawsuit. They are less interested in whether or not anything has been substantiated, but in seeing a pattern of similar complaints.” The main target of their investigation, she says, is “this ‘Program’ stuff.”
In the dayrooms of the Rikers juvenile facility, it’s not uncommon for officers to see an inmate sitting on a tall stack of plastic chairs—a kind of throne—while other inmates stand or sit on the floor. To sit down is a privilege, and therefore has value. One way to earn a seat, inmates told investigators, according to internal reports, is to join a “team,” a group that has formed a power bloc within a housing area. But while power is exercised for its own sake, it’s also used to compel weaker inmates to surrender the meager fruits of Rikers life.
“Are you wit’ it?” is the way it begins. At RNDC, what it means is, have you accepted the power structure as it exists. “Everyone goes through it sooner or later,” one inmate told investigators, according to an internal report. “It is part of your time, manning up.” “They attempt to extort you for the telephone, commissary, and even what channel [is] on the television,” said another inmate. “If you can even watch television.” Of course, they prey on the weakest. The only way to escape from the cycle is to become physically fearsome, “to get your weight up,” as one inmate phrased it. One inmate had his milk stolen in the dayroom, then was punched in the face. “Since you are not ‘with it,’ you get nothing,” his attacker said.
When you’re asked “Are you wit’ it?,” if you answer no, you get “spanked,” that is, beaten savagely. One confessed team member said, “We put the dude in a chicken-wing position and attack the rib area only.” The chicken wing means hands behind the head, like a full nelson in wrestling. Another inmate told investigators that if “you did not comply, you had to walk through a line of inmates; while you walked, you would be assaulted.”
Once you are “with it,” you enter a hierarchy. The lowest-ranking members of the team, investigators found, were referred to as “dayroom niggas”—peons who have no rights and don’t even get to use the chairs and tables. Just above them are the “pop-off dummies.”
“The pop-off dummy is the inmate that complies with anything the Team tells them to do,” one jail report states.